By E.J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON - Whats amazing about the defenses offered for President Bush in the Valerie Plame leak investigation is that they deal with absolutely everything except the central issue: Did Bush know a lot more about this case than he let on before the 2004 elections?
But first, lets offer full credit to the Bush spin operation for working so hard and so effectively to change the subject.
The news was the court filing by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald reporting that President Bush, through Vice President Cheney, had authorized I. Lewis Scooter Libby to leak sensitive intelligence information in July 2003 to discredit claims made by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Wilson had fired a direct shot at the White Houses rationale for the war in Iraq by saying the administration had distorted intelligence concerning Saddam Husseins supposed efforts to obtain nuclear materials. The threat that Saddam might go nuclear was an emotional centerpiece of the administrations case for war. Condoleezza Rice, then Bushs national security adviser, made the case with great dramatic effect on Sept. 8, 2002: We dont want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.
The presidents defenders want you to think that when it comes to leaking, every president does it. Why should Bush be held to a different standard? Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told CNN on Sunday that the Bush administration was innocently asking itself how do we get the full story out there?
Besides, since the president can authorize the declassification of anything he chooses to declassify, he cant be involved in anything untoward. This was not a leak, Joseph diGenova, a top Republican lawyer, told The New York Suns Josh Gerstein. This was an authorized disclosure. Ah, yes, it depends upon what the meaning of the word leak is. That sounds familiar, doesnt it?
These arguments merely distract attention from why Fitzgeralds disclosure was so important. When a fuss was kicked up in the fall of 2003 about the leaking of the name of Wilsons wife, former CIA operative Valerie Plame, to the media earlier in the year, the president spoke and acted as if he knew nothing and was incensed that any leaking was going on in his administration.
In its issue of Oct. 13, 2003, Time magazine quoted Bush as saying: Listen, I know of nobody -- I dont know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. Then the magazines writers made an observation that turns out to be prescient: Bush, they wrote, seemed to emphasize those last two words as if hanging on to a legal life preserver in choppy seas.
The key words here are classified information. Did Bush at the time he made that statement know perfectly well that Cheney and Libby were involved with the leak, but that it didnt involve classified information because the president himself had authorized them to act? Talk about a legalistic defense. Could it be that Bush --- heading into what he knew would be a difficult election -- was creating the impression of wanting the full story out when he already knew what most of the story was?
Which leads to another question: What exactly did Attorney General John Ashcroft know when he recused himself from the leak investigation? Did he know the investigation was getting dangerously close to Bush, Cheney, Libby and White House senior political adviser Karl Rove?
In announcing Fitzgeralds appointment on Dec. 30, 2003, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said that Ashcroft, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation. What were the facts and the evidence on which Ashcroft acted? Did the administration consciously consider if passing off the investigation to someone else would delay the day of reckoning to beyond the 2004 election? And, yes, what exactly did Bush tell Fitzgerald and his staff when they questioned him on June 24, 2004? What had Cheney told Fitzgerald earlier?
The most heartening sign that all the spin in the world will not allow the administration to evade such questions was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specters statement on Fox News Sunday that there has to be a detailed explanation precisely as to what Vice President Cheney did, what the president said to him, and an explanation from the president as to what he said so that it can be evaluated. Specter, a Republican and a former district attorney in Philadelphia, is just the right man to take the lead in breaking the spin cycle.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group